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The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand, a painting by Charles Goldie and Louis Steele. Photo/Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Why do we avoid facing up to our colonial past?

David Nicholson asks whether we fully understand the effect of the colonial process on Māori, in which their land, economy, language and spiritual beliefs were taken from them. 

The news last month that the Māori Council wants “racism out” by 2040 raises the question of why we have racism at all in Aotearoa.

An important reason is that the history taught in our schools has been seriously deficient. It has not necessarily been a deliberate lie, but rather history by omission. It is always the victor who writes the history and it’s written from their perspective. The trick is to retrospectively recognise and honestly accept what has happened here in Aotearoa.

However, it’s very difficult when Pākehā have never experienced colonialism themselves. I got an insight into that when, in 1973, I quit my job as a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and went backpacking through Asia.

Soon after arriving in India, I attended a “sound and light show” at the Red Fort in Delhi. It traversed India’s history until we got to a point at which I realised they were talking about the English. It was a story of shocking exploitation. Then, in 1947, the hated foreign occupier was finally forced to scuttle home.

Sitting there quietly in the dark on the North Indian Plains, reflecting on that nation’s experience of colonialism, it suddenly dawned on me: “That’s probably how Māori felt.” Indeed, some still do.

Lord Roberts. Photo/Getty Images

We here in Aotearoa will never shake off the baleful yoke of racism until all of us are honest about the colonial process. It was not accidental. By the time they got to Aotearoa, the English were well experienced at destroying indigenous cultures on the basis that they were inferior or were the wrong religion – they practised first on the Irish, then the Scots.

After Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army defeated the Irish, the English passed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652, resulting in the mass confiscation of almost all Catholic-owned land. Does that sound familiar?

In Scotland, they drove the Highlanders off their land by burning down their crofts, then pursuing them on horseback. The confiscated land was then given to the English king’s supporters. A familiar ring again.

The colonial process is also characterised by the deliberate destruction or debasement of indigenous cultural and spiritual values. In the Christian churches, the leaders are called ministers, bishops, priests, etc. Indigenous spiritual leaders are described as “witch doctors”. Christianity is a true, civilised religion – indigenous religions are “mumbo jumbo” or based on “voodoo”.

The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 resulted in the suppression of Māori spiritual practices – a manifest denial of religious freedom.

We tend to use euphemisms to disguise historical reality – that can be seen in our use of the words “settlers” and “pioneers”. They were nothing of the sort. Aotearoa was already settled. The pioneers who settled it arrived between 1250 and 1300. In reality, the English were refugees. My first forebears to arrive here, in 1862, were escaping the English class and economic system that ruthlessly exploited those who were “born to be ruled”.

After being thoroughly screwed by the landed classes, they then shamelessly abandoned whatever principles they may have held and eagerly accepted land stolen from Māori by the confiscation process. From exploited to exploiters over a mere three-month voyage.

The destruction of indigenous culture is at its most aggressive in the suppression of language. As in Ireland and Scotland, where their versions of the Gaelic languages were almost extinguished, Māori school-children were punished for speaking the language of their forebears. It mattered little, as Māori belonged to the uncivilised past and were on their way to extinction.

William Massey. Photo/Supplied

Deliberate and unabashed racism

I will digress a little here and observe that it must be perplexing to Māori that a Pākehā woman, Jennifer Ward-Lealand, has just been made New Zealander of the Year for, among other things, her commitment to te reo Māori. Without denying that recognition, what acknowledgement has there been for the thousands of Māori who have fought for the language over the past 180 years?

Setting that aside, it has been through the failure of our education system that we are largely ignorant of the colonial process. However, there is more to it than just process. There is our ignorance of the deliberate and unabashed racism of the English. Here are three examples.

 In 1917, the British Cabinet decided it would take Indians 400 years to learn to rule themselves. That’s right, if Indians were to tentatively raise their hands and request independence – “Please, sahib, may we drink deeply from the cup of English civilisation so that one day, in the far-off future, we might be able to rule ourselves” – then by about 2300 they might be able to take over from the man in the pith helmet.

In the second instance, British field marshal Lord Roberts, Commander-in-Chief, India, from 1885 to 1893, once argued that “native officers can never take the place of British officers. Eastern races … do not possess the qualities that go to make good leaders of men.”

The final example is directly pertinent to us – it’s the famous painting by Charles Goldie and Louis Steele, The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand. It implies Māori arrived here inadvertently after being blown off course in a storm. The sails of the waka hourua are torn, those on board are haggard and thin – they are lucky to have survived.

English racism was so blind that the fact that Polynesians had already conquered the entire Pacific, the largest ocean in the world, 600 years before Goldie and Steele put paint to canvas, did not occur to them.

Even today, when racism is close by, we often fail to acknowledge it. In Wellington, a grandiloquent memorial to Prime Minister William Massey overlooks the harbour – predictably, there’s no mention that he was the leader who declared that “nature intended New Zealand to be a white man’s country”.

Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo/Getty Images

Being honest about our past

In aggregate, the deliberate process of destroying the Māori economy, its culture and spirituality has produced a group in our society that is prone to poor health, low incomes and sub-standard living conditions. Their recovery from the wickedness of colonialism and racism has been patchy and slow, but it can be accelerated if we are all prepared to be honest about our past.

Britain’s present degeneration into a politically dysfunctional small island off the coast of Holland is a good time for us to start to decolonise our history and culture. Over the past few years, the long black cloud of the British Empire has been lifted from our shoulders.

After the brilliant independence speech of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – “At the stroke of the midnight hour when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom” – the authorities in Mumbai took all the colonial statues in the city and relocated them to the zoo.

It may be tempting to do that with the statue of Queen Victoria in Wellington’s Cambridge Terrace, but it is not necessary. It would be much better if we were all honest about our past and support the Māori Council in banishing racism from the hearts and minds of all people in Aotearoa.

David Nicholson is a Wellington journalist.

This article was first published in the March 7, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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